WASHINGTON: A deadly blizzard walloped the eastern United States on Saturday, paralysing Washington and New York under a heavy blanket of snow as officials warned millions of people to remain indoors until the storm eases up.
At least eight people were killed in three states in road accidents, officials said, as snow piled up from Arkansas to New York. Forecasters said the storm — dubbed “Snowzilla” — would last into Sunday as it moved menacingly up the coast.
Anticipating heavier snowfall, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York placed a travel ban on the city and its immediate suburbs beginning mid-afternoon, essentially shutting down the giant metropolitan area.
Metro and bus networks were shut down in Washington for the entire weekend, and largely shut in Philadelphia and New Jersey on Saturday. Thousands of motorists were stranded for hours on an ice-coated highway in Kentucky. And more than 200,000 people were without power.
In the capital Washington, more than 16 inches (40 centimetres) of snow was already on the ground, with a total of two feet or more expected by midnight. Similar snow totals were logged in New York, more than initially expected.
“There’s no reason to be out there,” Washington mayor Muriel Bowser told NBC News. “It will be driving snow and windy and we need to take heed.”
City police chief Cathy Lanier said whiteout conditions — virtually zero visibility — had been reported in some areas and urged residents to stay indoors so snow plows could work to clear the streets.
A blizzard warning was in effect for a large swath of the eastern United States from Washington up to New York, the National Weather Service said, as battalions of snow plows and salt spreaders laboured through the night and into Saturday.
The storm is expected to affect about 85 million Americans — about one quarter of the US population. Before it’s all over, it could cause more than $1 billion in damage, NWS officials said. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican presidential contender, left the campaign trail in New Hampshire to oversee the emergency response in his snowbound state.
“The snow is difficult and the visibility is no more than a quarter of a mile,” Christie told a press conference, stating there were 90,000 power outages across the state. “For anybody out there that’s at home right now thinking this might be a good time to go out in the northern part of the state, it is not.”
Cuomo placed a travel ban on America’s most populous city beginning at 2:30 pm (1930 GMT). “The national weather service has increased their forecast for the amount of snowfall,” Cuomo said. “Thirty inches would be one of the most serious amounts of snowfall that we have had in decades and to protect public safety, we’re going to be closing down the roads.”
The NWS reported that New York could see up to 25 inches of snow and that travel was extremely dangerous “due to heavy snowfall and strong winds with whiteout conditions likely.” All Broadway shows were cancelled and hockey and basketball games in various cities also fell victim to the weather.
Thousands of flights were scrubbed and train lines in Philadelphia were also badly hit. If the blizzard leaves as much snow in Washington as forecast, more than two feet, it could surpass a record set in 1922 by a storm that dumped 28 inches over three days and killed 100 people after a roof collapsed at a theater.
US Capitol Police said they were lifting a decades-old sledding ban, but the national monuments, Capitol building and Smithsonian museums were all closed. Even a massive snowball fight in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighbourhood, which 3,000 people said on Facebook they would attend, had to be postponed from Saturday to Sunday due to the storm’s ferocity.
Justin Wilcox and Arun Prakash, both 32, were taking selfies in the snow. “We just came back from some holidays in India so the weather is a difficult adjustment,” said Wilcox.
Snow and sleet also hit the southern states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia — unusual for the region. “We’re having a lot of accidents,” said Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina.
Six people were killed in road accidents, Nicole Meister, a spokeswoman for the state’s emergency management office, told AFP. Nearly 120,000 people were without power in the state, emergency officials tweeted — with electricity restored to some homes Saturday.
Elsewhere, one person was killed in Kentucky and another in Virginia, officials told AFP. Virginia state police tweeted that they responded to 989 crashes and 793 disabled vehicles across the state Friday.